The little farm wasn’t much, just 350 acres or so, and it was surrounded by much larger farms on three sides and separated from a state park on the other by a meandering stream about the width of a fancy double-wide. The other farms grew lots of good food, corn and soybeans and carrots, so of course the area’s deer spent lots of time on the wrong side of the fence.
Doug and Janet were both working folks and serious deer hunters. They made a decent living, Doug a mechanic and Janet operating her own cleaning service, but they didn’t have the scratch for leasing neighboring farm hunting rights or lots of improvements on their own land. But they had some oaks and some thick bedding cover, and they grow a few crops, so they had some deer living on them as well.
Amazingly, the two consistently shot as big, if not bigger, bucks than anything taken on the neighbors’ land. One of the neighbors offered guided hunts, and so they did it all — created food plots, set trail cameras, had guides scouting and hanging stands. When I first came to Doug and Janet’s, I thought to myself, how in the Wide, Wide World of Sports will I ever get a crack at a decent deer with all the local competition?
I will never forget what Doug told me before I ever set foot in the woods. “Remember what they told us when we started backpacking the Sierras back in the 1960s?,” he asked. “Leave your footprints and nothing more. That was our mantra, and interestingly, it has also proven to be how we shoot mature deer on our little farm. We let the other guys torch up their own property, and we reap the benefits.”
At first I thought perhaps there had been a little too much pill popping back in the season of love, if you know what I mean. Then I hunted the place as he instructed. That was nearly 30 years ago — and an education I have never forgotten.
1. To Plant Or Not To Plant
If you have a small block of land to hunt with big agriculture nearby, there is no way on the planet you can plant enough food plots to compete with the other guy, so don’t try. Does that mean you should not provide some food for the local deer? Of course not. It just means that you will not be able to draw and hold the majority of the area’s deer onto your land no matter what you do.
A better plan is to strategically plant crops that supplement what you have naturally and, if possible, provide food when the neighbors have already harvested theirs. “We have a few turnips and some late corn planted,” Doug said, “and we do that in the hopes that there will be at least some of it left during the late season, after the big farmers are done cutting their crops and the weather gets cold. That way we can feed and draw a few deer to our side of the fence for late-season hunts.”
The pair also cut small food plots inside their timber block, but that has produced mixed results. “The deer usually hammer the smaller plots before the plants have a chance to mature, so we’ve found these are not really a factor for us,” he said. “What it did do was clear out some small openings among the thick cover, which makes for some additional edge cover that we do hunt along the dirt track running through the trees. We’ve found the bucks like to scrape and rub along that track, and it can be good hunting in there during the pre-rut and rut periods.”
Janet also decided to try planting some fruit trees that provide fruit for them and give the deer something different from the field crops found on the neighbor’s farms. “Apples have proven to be deer magnets at certain times, and our little apple grove is a good spot to set up when the fruit starts dropping,” she said. “It is a sweet food they can’t get anyplace else, and the deer really seem to like it.”
2. Setting Up The Hunt
Doug has both aerial photographs and topographic maps of the property. He and Janet have also walked every square inch of the place. They are very familiar with the terrain features that naturally funnel deer movement both on their own land, and those trails leading off (and onto) the property.
“We have mapped out some traditional old rub lines, know where bucks like to scrape, and also where they like to bed,” he said. “We have also prepped more stand sites than I can remember without looking at my maps. In summer we go out and hang stands, do a small bit of shooting lane trimming, then get the heck out of the woods. We do not really need to do any in-season scouting. In fact, to me that is really counterproductive. Because the land mass is so small, I would rather hunt an established stand I know I can access and egress without alerting any deer, even if it is not in exactly the right spot at the moment. If I do not screw things up, sooner or later it will be.”
In summer they do a few small things to help their habitat become more productive. One is to fertilize an oak or three and leave the surrounding trees alone. “We’ve found that the trees we feed usually produce more and sweeter acorns than those we leave alone,” Doug said. “I also do it with the apples. Then when the nuts and fruit start dropping I hunt the sweetened trees first, and am often amazed at how many deer I see under them.”
3. Hunting Strategies
Doug has some stringent rules for hunting his place, all based on the theory that on a small block of land you cannot afford to educate any deer if you want to be consistently successful.
“Rule number one: You will follow a meticulous scent control program if you hunt here,” Doug said. “Every time you hit the woods you’ll be showered and wearing clean clothes. You’ll spray yourself and your gear liberally with a quality scent-eliminating spray before you leave the road.
“Rule number two: You will enter and leave the woods silently — no banging gear, no noisy ATV, no talking, nothing,” he continued. “When you get up and down the tree you will take every precaution to do so silently. Leave footprints and nothing more, remember? It’s critical.
“Rule number three: Once on stand, you will not fidget about like a small child in church,” Doug said. “We have our stands set up in as much cover as we can give them, but when the leaves start dropping you have to remain still or deer will pick you off. Once they do, that stand is burned for a goodly period of time.
“Rule number four: No gimmicks. By that I mean no decoys, no calling, no scents,” Doug continued. “I know these can be dynamite tactics at times, but I also know that there are times when all three techniques can terrify deer. My only exceptions are during the rut, when I might carry a doe bleat or grunt call I use if I see a buck cruising out of range, but I use it softly and judiciously. I also will employ some doe estrous scents along a couple of travel corridors leading from the fenceline to the interior of the woods.
“Rule number five: You have to hunt only when the wind is exactly right. You cannot cut any corners here. If the wind is squirrelly or just isn’t right for a particular stand, you just do not go there. We have stand sites set for most every wind condition, so even if you cannot hunt the exact spot you’d like on a given day, you still have more than one option.”
4. The Neighbor Factor
Naturally on a small property the neighbors will be a factor. There are three main ways they can affect your own hunting — their hunting pressure, whether or not they practice any sort of quality deer management practice, and whether or not they respect the fenceline.
“I love it when the neighbors hunt their land hard,” Janet said. “Sure they shoot some deer, but they also send a bunch of petrified deer over to live with us. This is one reason Doug is so adamant about using a low-impact approach to hunting. Many of the deer we hunt during season have already had that first hellish encounter with people, so their spider sense is already tingling. On the other hand, what we are trying to do is create a quasi-sanctuary where these pressured deer can come and feel safe and secure.”
It also makes little sense for Doug and Janet to practice QDM if the neighbors do not also do so. “We all know about deer dispersal and how mature bucks roam all over the place during the rut,” Doug said. “Our little local deer herd is small and there’s no doubt the bucks travel far and wide at times. We try and not shoot any bucks under 3½ years of age and we do our share of doe control, but our neighbors do more talking about QDM than practicing it — especially the guys who have guided clients who paid to shoot something. We do the best we can but are not obsessed with it.”
Then there are the poachers and, as Doug likes to call them, the fence sitters. “Why is it that we have this little block of land and one of our neighbors has five times as much, yet they have to erect stands right on the fenceline?,” Doug asked. “I purposely do not hunt the fenceline, but I do check it every now and then to make sure the standers are on their side of the line. Also, my neighbors and I get along fine, but they know if one of their fence sitters shoots across the fence and hits a deer, we are going to have problems.”
“And, of course, every now and then we find trespassers on our land,” Janet said. “Sometimes they are clients of the outfitter who honestly got lost and that’s OK, but usually they are people from out of the area who just don’t have a place to hunt. One of the things we do during season is patrol the boundary semi-regularly. We also have a few well-hidden trail cameras that can catch someone coming and going. It’s a pain, but this is part of the deal nowadays, so we take it with a grain of salt.”